White House Official Cecilia Munoz On Budget Plan

President Obama's $3.8 trillion budget proposal calls for spending cuts and ambitious increases in education and transportation. But critics say it is nothing more than a re-election tactic. Host Michel Martin speaks with Cecilia Munoz, Director of the Domestic Policy Council.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up in our weekly parenting conversation, we already know the French are more chic than we are and possibly have better cheese. But now we have to hear about how they're kids are more polite and less bratty than ours? A new book by an American living abroad makes that case and we will hear about it later in the program.

But first, a newsmaker interview with a top adviser to President Obama. Cecilia Munoz took over as the White House director of Domestic Policy Council just about a month ago. She is the first man or woman of Latino heritage to hold this position. She's known for her work on immigration reform, which is sure to be a hot-button issue once again in this presidential election year.

But yesterday, the president unveiled a $3.8-billion budget aimed at shrinking the nation's soaring deficits at a time when the economy remains a major concern for most Americans.

And Cecilia Munoz joins us now from the White House to talk about the budget plan and more we hope. Welcome to the program and congratulations on the new post.

CECILIA MUNOZ: Thank you so much Michel. Nice to be with you.

MARTIN: Now the president unveiled the budget at a community college in Virginia, about 25 minutes from the White House. And he told the crowd that this is what it takes to keep the American promise alive. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We've got a choice. We can settle for a country where a few people do really, really well and everybody else struggles to get by or we can restore an economy where everybody gets a fair shot, everybody does their fair share, everybody plays by the same set of rules from Washington to Wall Street to Main Street. That's the America you believe in.

MARTIN: So, I'd like to talk about both the politics and the substance. But let's take the substance first. There are increases for transportation and education funding. There are cuts elsewhere, but let's talk about the increases first. What's the logic?

MUNOZ: Well, it's really important that we have a balanced budget, right? That it's - that we have a balanced picture in our budget. So, we're reducing the deficits with this budget, but the president is also proposing to make investments on the stuff which is going to create jobs in the short term and on the stuff that's going to help workers access those jobs.

So, for example, he just announced in the context of the budget a community college partnership, which is investing $8 billion in making sure that community colleges and businesses are working together to make sure that the community colleges are providing training for the jobs that businesses are asking for. And these are good jobs. These are the jobs that are being created in this economy and in the economy of the future.

So, the overall budget picture here is to make sure that we are responsible, but that we're living up to our values and that we're doing what we can in the short term to create jobs and make sure that we are creating access to those jobs all across the country.

MARTIN: And there are spending cuts as well. Just a few that I saw cuts community development block grants by 7.5 percent, cuts disaster response and first responder assistance to $3.8 billion for state and local governments and so forth, there are many. What was the metric for the spending cuts? Were these programs you did not feel were effective, were not working? What was your framework for making those choices?

MUNOZ: Well, we - you know, we're in a very difficult budget environment, so we had to make some baseline decisions that really reflect what was part of the budget deal for last summer, where we knew that we've got new budget caps to deal with. We have to be responsible. We have to bring down the deficit. We really tried to trim places where we are learning how to do less - how to do more with less.

So, in the places where you've seen cuts often that reflect things like consolidation of programs, the greater efficiencies in the work, cutting out fraud and abuse in programs like Medicaid and Medicare. So, what the important story here is that there are some big cuts, but there are also really important investments.

And particularly what's going to move us forward economically and make sure that the economic recovery that we're experiencing happens faster and reaches all segments of the country, every community in this country. That is a priority for this administration.

MARTIN: And another priority is cutting the deficit. That's something that I think people from lots of different perspectives agree on. The president's plan would cut $4 trillion from the deficit over the next decade. But Republicans are already saying it's nothing more than election year politics and using some pretty strong language to make that point. Here's Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: This budget is literally loaded with deficit reduction gimmicks that would trigger an IRS audit for anybody else and make our current economic situation even worse.

MARTIN: He goes on to say in a statement that last years budget wasn't even worth the paper it was printed on and neither is this one. How do you respond to that?

MUNOZ: Well, you know, we know there's going to be the usual political jockeying in this town around these issues. But the reality is this. This budget reflects some really difficult choices, but some really important choices. And it ultimately reflects the values that the president articulated both in his State of the Union address and before that on the speech he gave in Kansas.

That we need to be the kind of society, where if you play by the rules, fulfill your responsibilities, you ought to be able to count on a good education for your kids. To count on being able to save a little bit for retirement, and to be able to own a home. And everybody needs to contribute. Everybody needs to participate in doing that. This budget reflects those kinds of choices. It reflects the notion that folks at the very, very top ought to be contributing at least at the same level as the rest of us.

MARTIN: But what about his argument that on, number one, gimmickry and, number two, politically untenable arguments? He just says in his statement that - just to take two examples - he says he'll bank - this is Mitch McConnell again, a Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. He's speaking of the president. He says, he'll bank savings by not fighting a war he already declared we wouldn't be fighting and he'd raise money with tax hikes that have been rejected eight times by both parties.

What's your response to that? I mean, is it your working assumption that this budget is dead on arrival but this is a statement of the president's priorities that he feels it's important to make? Or do you really feel that this is a legislative blueprint or is this simply a strong statement of the president's values that he wants to put before the public?

MUNOZ: Well, it should be a legislative blueprint and it should be a statement of our country's values. I mean, at the State of the Union address, the president concluded his speech with a call to bipartisanship. I thought it was a really compelling call. He talked about the men and women in uniform who are not being partisan, who are not being political when they are joined together working on a mission to defend this country. And, you know, his charge to his staff as well as to the Congress is let's work together in that spirit.

So, his door is always open to bipartisanship. We obviously don't always get it. But at the end of the day, this document reflects tough choices, important investments, and a solid direction for this country to go in. And you've also heard the president say that in the areas, you know, where we're struggling to get legislation through because we don't have the partners we need. We will continue to keep the door open to find those partners. But this president is also going to continue to do what he can to move the ball forward for people, even in the absence of congressional action.

MARTIN: We're talking with Cecilia Munoz. She's one of the president's top advisers on domestic policy matters. We're talking about the $3.8-billion budget that the president presented yesterday. And we're talking about whatever else is on her mind.

In the couple of minutes that we have left, just one more question on this, if you don't mind. This is a divided government. What is your message or the administration's message to people who just don't agree with you philosophically? Let's just take the politics out of it and just say that this is a philosophical difference about the best way to move the economy forward. What's your best argument to people who just don't agree?

MUNOZ: Well, we don't expect unanimity on every issue, but we do think that this is a package of proposals that, first of all, has had bipartisan support in the past. And we are hopeful that Americans of good will agree that we ought to be investing in education. We ought to be making sure that we are doing everything within our power with things like The Race to the Top program to reform our schools, to make sure that we are achieving quality for our children, because that's what's going to put on the best possible footing moving forward economically.

That we ought to be investing in things like manufacturing, like infrastructure, because that both creates jobs now and sets us up for economic success in the future. These are not partisan ideas, at the end of the day. These are the best ideas for moving the economy forward and making sure that the gains in the economy reach every constituency and every community.

You know, it is to be hoped that that's something that more people agree on than disagree. And we're going to look for those places of agreement, so that we can be moving the ball forward for people.

MARTIN: And just to clarify, I said $3.8 billion. I meant to say $3.8 trillion budget.

MUNOZ: Right.

MARTIN: It's a hard - sorry. It's a hard number to get my head around, even at this stage of the game.

Let's just switch gears for a couple of minutes and talk a little bit about you. Before you took on this position, you were one of the administration's lead liaisons to the Latino community. Immigration reform remains a difficult and emotional issue for both political parties.

There has been talk that - I don't think it's just talk - that some Latino voters, perhaps many, are disillusioned with the lack of progress on immigration reform. What's your best argument to them about why they should stick with this president who has not gotten immigration reform done?

MUNOZ: Well, immigration reform is one of a litany of issues where this president is trying to move the ball forward and we have really struggled with the Congress. The American Jobs Act is another example, where the president put forward very clear proposals that would create two million jobs. We took that to Congress over and over again as a whole and in pieces and only one tiny sliver of that law passed, which was the piece that helps businesses get a tax credit if they're hiring veterans. The rest of it is still on the table. The rest is something this president is still fighting for.

So, immigration, like the American Jobs Act, is in this category of areas where this president has a very clear vision, where there used to be bipartisanship, where there isn't so much of it now, but where the president is going to continue to fight because it's the right thing for the country and where we're going to continue to look for bipartisanship if we can find it. But where we're also going to try to do what we can administratively with the tools that we've got.

Our administrative tools are never going to be enough to get the job done, but this president's going to do what he can while we look for the partners that we need to pass the major reforms that we need to get the economy moving again, to get immigration reform, so that the system works, to make sure that we're reforming our educational system properly. These battles all have that in common, that we're stuck in Congress, but this president is doing everything he can administratively.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, how will you know you've succeeded in this job?

MUNOZ: Well, I'll tell you what. I've been an advocate in the civil rights community and particularly for the sorts of people who get left behind my entire career. For me, success really means that we are moving this country forward as a whole for everybody. It can't just be for some people. It can't just be for people at the top. What makes us strong is that we are a diverse society that's also unified and our outcomes, our results, have to benefit everybody or we're not doing our job right.

So, to me, that's an important measure, and it's consistent with what I've been trying to do my whole life.

MARTIN: Cecilia Munoz is the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. She joined us from the studios at the White House. Cecilia Munoz, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MUNOZ: Thank you so much.

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